As Baltimore Running Festival organizers considered changes in the lead-up to Saturday's morning of races downtown, they seemed to borrow an idea from the runners themselves: It's not how you start that matters. It's how you finish.
It was an idea small in scope but big in impact. Patrick Sullivan noticed it right away. As he came down Hopkins Place and made a left onto Pratt Street for the final tenth of a mile in the Baltimore Marathon, as he saw the finish line in the distance and heard the blast of cheers and clang of cowbells on either side, he thought of maybe the country's most famous marathon.
"It's kind of like that turn onto Boylston Street," the Catonsville resident, 28, said, referring to the iconic final stretch of the Boston Marathon. "You hit that turn, and it just erupts."
In rerouting the races' endpoint from the parking lot between M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards to Pratt Street, the Inner Harbor not far off, officials had hoped to make just that kind of lasting impression. After as many as 26.2 miles of pounding pavement and perfect weather, it was a special kind of runner's high to see glimmering water within walking distance — or at least some kind of liquid that wasn't their own sweat.
Jordan Tropf, a former Navy cross country runner and current student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, won the marathon, crossing the line in 2 hours, 29 minutes, 6 seconds, while McDaniel foreign-laguages professor Silvia Baage, 36, of Rockville, won the women's race in 2:58:36. But runners almost universally hailed the new finish as the highlight of the course.
"The feel when you turn this corner onto Pratt Street," Tropf, 25, said, "is just unbelievable."
This was Tropf's first Baltimore Running Festival. He didn't know what he'd been missing in the 16 years prior. Much of the course remained unchanged Saturday — runners still zipped by the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, looped around Lake Montebello, crossed the Howard Street Bridge — but the rebooted ending was, for many, a welcome new beginning.
Caryn Just, 29, wasn't sure she'd like it. She's a Baltimorean, born and raised, and in her first two half-marathons at the Baltimore Running Festival, she'd come to appreciate the way the course terminated near the two stadiums she adores.
But after she finished? "Then it was just, like, a parking lot," the Rodgers Forge resident said.
"This is more about the city, I feel like, which is cool, because I think that's the best part about the race," she said. "I love Baltimore and I feel like it's a fun thing that brings everybody out. I feel like this is Baltimore-centric."
Dave Berdan, 36, a two-time winner of the Baltimore Marathon and the coach of the Stevenson cross country team, didn't mind the previous course iteration. He ran it six times. But his reassessment of the race aligned almost exactly with the hopes of the event's executive race director.
Lee Corrigan, president of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, had said Thursday that he envisioned thousands of runners standing at the Inner Harbor for postrace photos, the city's scenic backdrop shared across social media, strangers to Baltimore getting a sense of its running bona fides.
So Berdan wasn't far off when he likened the new homestretch to a "photo op," adding: "It feels like a normal big-city marathon. Now, if you look around, you see skyscrapers. …
"Yeah, you had the backdrop of the Ravens stadium and Camden Yards [last year], but here, it's the whole city."
The festival flowed easily on the course and off. Officials had changed the starting time of the half-marathon so as not to interfere with the top contenders in the full marathon, and indeed, the only runner to pass Tropf on Saturday was a relay team member.
Once across the finish line, runners collected their breath, then their medals, then fruit and nutrition bars as they passed along to the "Celebration Village" at McKeldin Square, which pulsed with life for hours afterward.
"This is so easy," Just said. "I could go get an Uber now if I really wanted to. I like that a lot."
Car traffic wasn't a problem Saturday. Neither was foot traffic, if only because the thousands of spectators downtown couldn't have had a more grateful audience. Railings along Pratt Street were packed two or three deep in some spots near the finish line.
Eileen Ser, 23, a Germantown native and Penn State graduate student, felt every vibration as she made her final push.
"I like that," Ser said. "I definitely feed off the energy of other people cheering, people able to be there for the finish."
"The more noise there is," said her friend Tyler Pitkanen, 24, of Federal Hill, "you just feed off that adrenaline."
Remus Medley, 47, of Baltimore has run every marathon put on in the city. He used words like "perfect" and "beautiful" to describe his 17th, from the availability of water along the course to how police officers were the ones handing out medals.
This year's festival reminded him of another race: the now-defunct Grand Prix of Baltimore, which brought IndyCar downtown and onlookers to the streets.
No longer, he said, was the city hidden.
"It shows that Baltimore is a friendly city and in big events, people come together," he said. "I tell you, this is a great day and I tell you, this finish line, you can't beat. You just can't beat it."